How newcomers are building Thunder Bay’s food scene with homegrown food and culture

Thunder Bay’s dining scene apparently offers more options than ever, thanks to newcomers bringing a slice of something new to the northwestern Ontario city.

Entrepreneurs say Thunder Bay is now a hot spot for new businesses because there’s a great demand for variety and the cost of living is significantly lower than in big cities like Winnipeg or Toronto.

Just over 9,000 immigrants live in Thunder Bay, representing almost 9% of the Canadian population, according to the latest figures from Statistics Canada. About half of these new arrivals come from Europe, while the rest are split between Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South and Central America.

Andre Pires and his mother, Paula Costa, originally from Portugal, opened Thunder Bay’s newest restaurant, Sweet Nata, which is named after a Portuguese pastry shop and is said to be the city’s first Portuguese restaurant.

Costa’s husband frequently worked in Thunder Bay, which meant Andre and Paula came to visit. They noticed the opportunity the city provided for entrepreneurs, she said.

Costa previously owned a cafe in Portugal and had considered opening one in Toronto, but found it too difficult due to affordability and a saturated market.

Duha Shaar, left, and her daughter Aya Wadi arrived in Thunder Bay from Aleppo, Syria in 2017 and run Royal Aleppo off Red River Street in Thunder Bay. (Sara Kae/CBC)

Thunder Bay is “definitely a growing city that has a lot of business potential,” Pires said. “It’s a city that offers a lot of opportunities for everyone, especially opening a new business. There are a lot of new varieties coming in the future, and living wisely – that’s much better Toronto. The cost of living in Toronto is crazy.”

The two are excited to see their menu and business grow, but in the meantime they suggest you check out their current menu items, which include, a Nata. Think butter pie, but puff pastry with a sweet cream filling.

A restaurant for Middle Eastern foodies

Immigrants and other newcomers are critical to the future of Thunder Bay’s economy, according to a 2020 report from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). He notes that the local workforce and entrepreneurial base is aging rapidly, and building a talent pipeline would be key for the region going forward.

The report also suggested that every 100 new immigrant families with average family income would generate more than $9 million in household spending.

The federal government is making immigration a key part of its economic plan. This fall’s economic statement notes that “immigration is central to our identity as Canadians, while being a key driver of Canada’s economic growth,” and aims to see 1.45 million new permanent residents in this country over the next three years.

The mother-daughter team of Duha Shaar and Aya Wadi are two of the refugees who came to Thunder Bay from Aleppo, Syria in 2017. Now they run Royal Aleppo, which is no secret to fans Middle Eastern cuisine in Thunder Bay.

“I think having an authentic Syrian restaurant here in Thunder Bay is a good thing,” Wadi said. “It helps to tell more about the culture and our history, and at the same time, to have a good variety – for people who are looking for new foods to try.”

They felt grateful to find a new home where they could start their lives, and eventually their business, Wadi said. The two worked closely with the local Roots to Harvest cultural kitchen, where they were able to focus on building economic access and community for refugees and newcomers to Canada.

Due to the success of the program, they were inspired to start with a small home catering business even though it would be just two of them most of the time.

They are proud of all of their accomplishments and will continue to serve their favorite dishes with a smile.

The success of the bubble tea shop during the pandemic

Aaron Parilla and his wife, Hazel Capillan, opened Milktease in February 2020 at the height of restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. They weren’t sure it would work, but were pleasantly surprised when they had to temporarily close after three days because they ran out of supplies.

Aaron Parilla is one of two owners of Milktease, which serves bubble tea. (Sara Kae/CBC)

Parilla and Capillan saw an opportunity to share their love for milk tea (also known as bubble tea or boba tea) in Thunder Bay, knowing there wasn’t much to offer in the local cafes beyond tea or coffee.

Bubble and milk tea is very popular in many Asian countries. Parilla tried her first milk tea while visiting family in the Philippines and realized her potential in Thunder Bay’s growing food scene.

Since opening in 2020, they have already expanded to Lakehead University and now Euclid Avenue on the south side of town. The couple have always intended to expand into multiple locations and are excited to see this happen within three years of opening.

Parilla encourages people to give their ideas a chance. He doesn’t regret his decision to stay in Thunder Bay and not move to Toronto.

“The best thing is when someone walks in and they’re talking on the phone with someone and they’re like, ‘Hey, I’m at Milktease. Do you want something?’ And when you hear that, that’s one thing people know,” Parilla said.

Ryan Moore of the Community Economic Development Center in Thunder Bay works with small businesses and entrepreneurs in the community. He credits international students who come to study at Lakehead University and Confederation College with helping to create a market for these companies.

“Many of them are looking for their own opportunities, having struggled to find their own food and supplies,” Moore said. “They arose from their own needs and others they saw.”

All three companies say they felt welcome in Thunder Bay.

They are excited to see what the future holds and say they are in it for the long haul.

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